Amonix Thinks Big (Very Big!) to Innovate Solar Power

Last Updated Apr 22, 2010 3:18 PM EDT

Amonix isn't a name that has been kicked around a great deal yet in cleantech circles, but that's rapidly changing this week. The Silicon Valley company is touting a $129.4 million investment into a solar technology that can be simultaneously described by two opposing words: gigantic and tiny.

Take a look at the picture at right. That's an Amonix solar "panel". You'll note the two miniscule men in yellow hard hats. This solar panel is truly the Godzilla of its industry -- nobody will be committing walk-up theft on these. The huge size is for a particular reason that I'll get to in a moment. But what's inside the panel, the tiny part, is just as important.

You see, Amonix is a maker of concentrating photovoltaic (CPV) technology, which simply means that they're focusing sunlight from a wider area onto a point, a small high-efficiency solar cell. Each of those huge panels will contain thousands of individual concentrating units.

CPV isn't a new idea to the solar industry. Much worse than that: it's essentially a discredited idea. While companies like SolFocus are still working to prove CPV, the CPV industry as a whole has struggled to prove that its idea is any cheaper than just using a regular solar panel -- in most cases, it's much more expensive. Hucksters like Sunrgi, which popped up making ridiculous claims, haven't helped.

So why believe in Amonix? The oddity of its solar panels the reason; strange ideas are common in cleantech. It's really the investors behind the company that suggest there's something to it. There are quite a few, including venture capital big names Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Angeleno Group, Adams Street Partners and the Westly Group.

Those all-star investors are certainly intimate with missteps. It's not likely that they'd put money into Amonix now unless the company has really proven that it can compete in cost with other solar technologies, in a market that was increasingly looking like it was promised to a small set of successful companies.

How it can do so has to be a matter of speculation for now. But those massive panels will have a lot to do with it. When you get that large, you're only useful for utility-scale solar; the plan is probably to plant fields of Amonix panels out in the desert, where they can passively suck up the sunlight for years.

The one obvious advantage they're reporting is efficiency: an Amonix panel can convert 39 percent of the sunlight that strikes it to electricity. That number -- a great deal higher than regular solar panels or even most solar thermal technology from competitors like BrightSource or Ausra -- means that at the end of the day, these huge panels will actually need less land to do the same job.